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United Way: Is it on the right way?

After a couple of years of lower-than-hoped-for fund-raising campaigns, persons involved in Harrison County United Way met last week to examine the county’s giving and investment history and to discuss future plans.
“It’s a good idea to sit back and take a look at where we are, especially with the challenges we’ve been facing,” said Barb Bridgwater, a Metro United Way area director.
A dozen people, including members of the Harrison County Advisory Board and Community Investment Team, met Feb. 4 at Lincoln Hills Christian Church in Corydon for a retreat.
Bridgwater cited some of the challenges: recovering from Sept. 11, 2001, an unstable economy, and the fact that “contributions to non-profits are down.”
Advisory board chair Tom Tucker said another factor has been other big campaigns in the county the past three or four years that have probably siphoned dollars away from United Way.
“You’re going to continue to have challenges,” said Elsie Atherton, a former United Way director in Kentucky who led the discussion. “Life in the world around us is changing. If you don’t pay attention to that, you’ll be left in the dust.”
Barbara Middleton, who chaired last year’s campaign, said that although the goal of $430,000 wasn’t met, the $377,000 raised “are dollars that are available to United Way.”
Atherton praised Harrison County’s accomplishments. “You’ve done a remarkable job in an extremely difficult time,” she said.
Atherton recalled a campaign in which she was involved in the 1980s, at the old International Harvester plant in Louisville, shortly before it closed. “The employees knew they were probably going to be on the receiving end” of some of the services provided by United Way funding.
“Often, it’s not until you or someone you personally know needs assistance provided by a United Way agency that people understand,” Atherton said.
After looking at some demographics for the Harrison County, retreat attendees commented on some of the information gathered from the recent U.S. census.
One observation was that Harrison County is becoming more populated – in 1990 the population was 29,890, compared to 34,929 in 2000 – and its residents are wealthier: the median family income in 1990 was $31,160. In 2000, it increased to $48,542.
Bridgwater and Jan Sherrell, who works for United Way, said they were surprised to see that there are fewer families living in poverty. In 1990, statewide, there were 118,225 impoverished families in Indiana; in 2001, there were 107,789. Harrison County had 617 families living in poverty in 1990, compared to 480 in 2000.
While discussing the dollars that come to Harrison County from employee payroll deductions, Don Gossman, who co-chairs the county’s Community Investment Team, said not all county residents’ contributions support the programs here. In his case, as in many others like his, he works outside Harrison County and so his contribution is used in the county where he works.
Gossman said he knows the issue has been discussed, but Metro United Way officials believe the number of people who work in Harrison County and live elsewhere offsets their counterparts.
“That has to distort the numbers some,” he said.
Atherton agreed that United Way has “for years” studied the living and work patterns of its contributors. “It’s something we have to keep looking at because things change,” she said.
As more and more organizations compete for funds, Atherton said it’s crucial to be able to answer questions such as: Why should people give to United Way?
While no concrete solution was offered at last week’s meeting, several suggestions were made, such as revitalizing persons who are successful in getting contributions and keeping them involved; host complimentary activities that promote United Way; complete a needs assessment, and survey residents to gather their opinions.
The group will meet again in the next few weeks to develop a plan for revitalizing Metro United Way in Harrison County.